Bountiful Brine

The end of summer, more than any other time, I always have the feeling of so much to do with so little time to do it. The wilds and my garden are both coming to the end of their glorious runs and there is little time for rest if I want to be able to enjoy their bounty for months to come.

Fruits, mushrooms, and vegetable must all be processed and preserved for the coming of the coldest months ahead of us. Make jams, jellies, and preserves. Stuff the dehydrator to the brim. Can the tomatoes. Salt cure the mushrooms. Blanch and freeze the peas. Dry and shell the beans… And the list goes on and on. It can be overwhelming and we end up cutting corners and even losing some of what we’ve worked so hard to nurture and in order to provide ourselves and our families.

Over the years I’ve experimented with many different forms of food preservation. I’ve done everything from traditional curing and smoking to using fungal enzymes and bacterial cultures to preserve. Yet I’ve always come back to one simple technique over and over again. It’s a technique that works for everything from strawberries to salmon; A technique so foolproof and effective that it has been used by peoples the world over to preserve their harvest. The technique I speak of is brining.

A brine, in its simplest form, is a mixture of salt and water. The ratio of salt to water is easily scaled up or down and can handle the addition of any ingredient. Meats, seafood, fungi, fruits, and vegetables can all be preserved in brine.

All you do is mix salt and water and then pour it over the food that needs preserving. And one of great things about brining foods is that they will pickle if you use a lower salt brine and they won’t pickle if you use a higher salt brine. You can literally have your cake and eat it too.

Spruce tips in brine-2 Beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers in brine Trout in a koji brine Barley in brine

A few things to note about brining foods before you begin:

  • Use the right salt. Table salt has iodine added to it and that can turn brined vegetables mushy so use kosher or sea salt. Unrefined mineralized sea salts are my salt of choice. They contain trace amounts of magnesium, manganese, and potassium. These minerals act to keep your brined vegetable crisp.
  • Use the right container. Stay away from metal. Non-reactive containers made from glass, ceramic, and food grade plastic are the way to go. I prefer glass. It’s sturdy, reusable, and I can clearly see what’s going on inside the jar. Plus, glass just has a wonderful feel and aesthetic to it.
  • Be mindful of time. The longer something is in brine the more it’s taste, flavor, and texture will change. There are a great many reactions occurring during this process and the longer they are allowed to continue the more change you’ll notice.
  • Be mindful of the environment. Exposure to atmosphere, light, and different temperatures can greatly impact the food being brined. Keep your container out of direct sunlight, keep the food submerged in the brine and limit its access to air, and keep it at room temperature. A temperature range of between 50 and 90 degrees is what you’re looking for. I try to keep the temp right in the middle, about 70 degrees.
  • Be clean. You wouldn’t cut lettuce for a salad on the same cutting board that you just deboned a chicken on without washing it first would you? Then don’t risk contaminating your brine. Properly wash your hands and any utensils you use before you put them in your brine.
  • Use a scale! The only true way to know how much salt you are using is to weigh it out. Volume measurements are incredibly inaccurate and can lead to things spoiling. The great thing about this is that the volume of water is equal to its weight. For example, 16 fluid ounces of water weighs 16 ounces. To calculate the weight of salt needed to make a 5% brine simply multiply 16 by 5%. 16x.05=.8. You’ll need .8 of an ounce of salt to make a 5% brine using 16 ounces of water.
  • Don’t freak out. There will be some funky things happening in your brine. Bubbling, frothing, hissing, and surface mold are all natural things that will happen to foods in brine. As I stated previously there are many different types of reactions occurring in your brine. Gas exchange is one of them as is cloudiness. Mold is another. If mold appears on the surface of your brine then gently scoop it off with a spoon. It’s really easy to tell if something has gone wrong, your brine will smell, look, and taste bad.

cabbage in brine Peaches in brine Radishes in a buttermilk brine

Lower salt brines, those whose salt content is between 3% and 7%, will yield foods that pickle to varying degrees of textures, flavors, and tastes. Kosher dill pickles are a classic example. I make mine using a 5% brine. I urge you to experiment with different lower salt concentrations to find what works best for your palate. Keep in mind that the less salt you use the more funky, dank, and musty notes you’ll develop in your pickle. For example, I like to pickle whole radishes in a 3% brine. The funky and musty accents tame the harsh pungent bite that is inherent to this feisty root.

Higher salt brines, 10% and up, won’t pickle due to the higher concentrations of salt preventing microbial growth. These foods are essentially brine cured and need to be rinsed before you use them. I typically use these higher salt brines to preserve meat and fish but in recent years I’ve fallen in love with what they do to vegetables. I love cauliflower, zucchini, and yellow squash that has been preserved in a 12% brine. When you remove them for the brine they do need to be soaked in several changes of water to remove some of the salt. After that, simply use them as you would in their fresh state. Be careful not to add additional salt when cooking as you won’t wash out all the salt.

The great thing about brining is that aside from calculating how much salt to use you don’t need a recipe. If you want to brine carrots and peas with fresh mint and garlic then do it. Add as much garlic and mint as you want. If you want to brine green tomatoes with some prosciutto then do it! The possibilities are endless.